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Aurora Borealis in Svalbard

Aurora Borealis in Svalbard

The Northern Lights can be observed from September to March!

10 things you should know about the Northern Lights

Surrounded by myths and legends, the Northern Lights provide a wonderful reason to visit Svalbard during the Polar Night. This article provides information and useful tips about this fantastic natural phenomenon that includes every colour of the rainbow dancing in the sky above us.

1. What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights are a physical phenomenon that occurs when the solar winds are stronger than normal. Electrically charged particles released from the sun collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen when they enter the earth’s atmosphere, which we see as green, yellow, red or orange light in the sky. The Northern Lights generally occur at an altitude of 80 to 500 km above the ground.

2. How do you experience the Northern Lights?

Your best chances of experiencing the Northern Lights are in the northern parts of Scandinavia, northern Russia, Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and Iceland. It may be visible in southern Norway once a month and even less frequently further south in Europe. The Northern Lights season in Svalbard is from late September to the middle of March. The best time is from 18:00 (6 p.m.) to midnight, while there is also a good period between 04:00 and 08:00 (4 a.m. and 8 a.m.). During the darkest time of the year in Svalbard in December and January, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights around the clock – even in the middle of the day. Svalbard is the only place on earth you can experience what we refer to as “daytime Northern Lights”. For this reason, a lot of international Northern Lights research takes place in Svalbard and a Northern Lights observatory and EISCAT radars are located here. To ensure the most spectacular Northern Lights experience, you should avoid visiting when there's a full moon. You should also allow several days for your visit, which improves your chances if the Northern Lights is conspicuous by its absence one evening.

Jan Hvizdal

3. What is the history of the Northern Lights?

Throughout history, the Northern Lights have been surrounded by myths and legend. The Vikings thought the Northern Lights were the reflections of the ghosts of virgins. The indigenous Sami people thought you could hear the Northern Lights, as indicated by the Sami name Guovssahas which means the “light you can hear”. The Inuits thought that the Northern Lights were the dance of the dead, while the Native Americans believed they were seeing flames under massive cauldrons where warriors boiled their enemies.

4. Who solved the mystery of the Northern Lights?

Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland is known as the “father of the Northern Lights” since he was the first person to explain what caused it. He began to describe the phenomenon around 1900, even thought it had already been observed for thousands of years. Birkeland demonstrated that light was created when electrons from the sun collided with gases when the entered the earth’s atmosphere. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize seven times, but never won it.

Jarle Røssland

5. Is there a guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights in Svalbard?

No! Like any other natural phenomenon, the Northern Lights is not something that can be ordered on demand. But here are a few tips if you are coming to Svalbard to see the Northern Lights: 1) Be patient! Seeing the Northern Lights relies on clear weather, which can be a challenge at times. Useful tips – If you can see stars, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights! 2) The Northern Lights often come in waves lasting 30 minutes. If you see a beautiful display, enjoy it while it lasts and then set your alarm for a few hours later and try again! 3) During the Polar Night in Svalbard, it’s possible to see the Northern Lights around the clock so remember to look up during the daytime too! Svalbard is the only inhabited place on earth where this is possible.

6. How do you photograph the Northern Lights?

Most people have seen wonderful photos of the Northern Lights and perhaps wish they can take similar photos themselves. There are a few things to remember: manual focus, aperture, shutter speed, enough battery capacity and remote shutter release. Moreover, it’s essential to use a tripod or keep your camera completely still. You will find many articles on the internet that offer good tips about taking the perfect Northern Lights photo, but it demands a lot of patience and some trial and error. If you only have a handheld camera on your mobile phone, our best advice is to put down your phone, avoid taking poor, blurry photos and look up and enjoy the sight instead! 

Hurtigruten Svalbard/Agurtxane Concellon

7. Named after the polar lights?

The scientific name for this phenomenon in the Northern Hemisphere is Aurora Borealis, while the equivalent in the Southern Hemisphere is the Aurora Australis. No less than 4,580 women/girls in Norway are named Aurora. This name has become extremely popular since the turn of the millennium. Perhaps you will meet a young “Aurora” during your trip to Svalbard?

8. Dress warmly for the Northern Lights!

Winter, clear weather and night are all factors that scream “COLD”! As you get the best views of the Northern Lights outside, it’s essential to dress warmly. If you put on all the warm clothes you have and then a thick jacket on top of that, you will be ready for an evening date with Aurora!

Hurtigruten Svalbard/Agurtxane Concellon

9. How do I see the Northern Lights in Svalbard?

Svalbard offers many excellent ways of experiencing the Northern Lights! The best options include outdoor activities. We recommend a Northern Lights safari by dog sled, dog wagon, snowmobile, bus, snowcat, on foot or a Northern Lights evening at Camp Barentz. If you are in Longyearbyen, ask for a window table at Funktionærmessen Restaurant. If you choose to eat dinner at Huset or Gruvelageret, we recommend walking back to your hotel. I you are lucky; you will see the Northern Lights on the way! 

10. How can I discover the Northern Lights?

Look up! The locals in Longyearbyen share their Northern Lights observations on the Facebook page “Nordlys i Longyearbyen…. Aurora Boreal”. Posts generally appear on this page a short time after the Northern Lights have begun to flicker in the sky. Several Northern Lights apps are also available. If you download one of these on your smart phone and select your location, you will receive an alert if the Northern Lights are forecast. You can often check a long-range Northern Lights forecast several days in advance. But don’t give up if the forecast is not promising because suddenly an unexpected solar storm may come your way!

Where can I learn more?

See Pål Brekke’s award-winning documentary about the Northern Lights. Pål is a senior advisor at the Norwegian Space Centre in Oslo, he lectures at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and is perhaps the person in Norway who is the most hyped up about the Northern Lights!

Jarle Røssland

Written by Maria Philippa Rossi 

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